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Middle East and Africa

The Revolutions in North Africa: a Challenge for Everyone

There are moments when the timing of a biannual journal is difficult – the spring of 2011 was certainly one of those moments. At the outset, in the West, we did not give much importance to the referendum which in January opened up the road to the independence of the South of the Sudan, the first change ever in the boundaries of a post-colonial African State (this observation, ironically enough, came form Colonel Gheddafi). Immediately afterwards, however, in a succession of mass uprisings, we witnessed the end of the regimes of Ben Ali and of Mubarak, disorders in Bahrain and then the beginning of the revolt in Libya, which soon degenerated into a civil war with very uncertain features. While I write growing disorders are to be seen in Syria and the Yemen. We saw Egyptian demonstrators camped in Tahrir Square, counter-demonstrators recruited by the government gallop their camels through the streets of Cairo, and then the pick-up trucks of Libyan rebels skidding off roads in the face of the Libyan regular army in the best tradition of Ibn Khaldun, and the fragmentary videos from Syria which amongst many doubts on one thing at least are very clear: in Damascus, as well, there are shootings and deaths. Through our newsletter we have sought to follow the rapid development of this situation, privileging where possible the accounts of those who actually live in those places. We looked with amazement and passion, at one and the same time, at the emergence of a new and powerful demand for freedom in peoples which very many had adjudged to be condemned to a suffocating immobility. And yet the moment has come to sum up what has happened: the very large number of images which the mass media pumped out gave us the sensation (or better the illusion) that we were ‘in the front line,’ but in essential terms how much have we understood about what happened and above all about what will happen? It is here that this edition of this review wants to position itself.

 

 

Sunnis and Shiites

 

 

During the first euphoria of the revolutions, while so many usual points of reference were falling the scenario seemed to be so changed as to be unrecognisable. A gigantic tabula rasa without any connections with the past? Clearly such was not the case. Every day that passes confirms the impression that these revolts (which we rightly call revolutions) have introduced something really new, albeit grafted within a specific context. To chant a slogan in Cairo is not the same as shouting it out in Peking, and, as has been acutely observed, ‘liberal democracy is not the end of history.’ This is why the contemporary relevance of this edition has adopted a special point of view: the unresolved tension between Sunni and Shiite communities which has deep roots in the past (just how deep they are is explained by Sabrina Mervin in her article) and which represents in the view of many analysts the principal feature of the contemporary Middle East. With Christians in between them, as we can well see in the Lebanon.

 

 

Hitherto revolution has been successful in two of the most homogenous countries of the region, but in more variegated contexts sectarian oppositions are able to find easy purchase. Apart from the extreme case of Bahrain where the tension goes back decades if not centuries, this analysis applies to Syria, is already becoming applicable to Iraq, and could also apply to Saudi Arabia. The revolts and revolutions are changing consolidated power relations (perhaps not in the direction indicated by the mass media, as is observed by Bernard Hourcade when discussing the much promoted idea of the ‘rise of Iran’), but they also have the function of being an improper weapon. If I may be allowed the image: each of the contestants is fully interested in throwing the burning coal into the field of his neighbour. Foreign interventions, amongst neighbours who do not get on well, are certainly possible.

 

 

However, the demand for greater freedoms is new and this demand is made by a generation which some observers, such as Olivier Roy, have for a number of years invited us to define as ‘post-Islamist.’ Not, naturally, in the sense that this generation has abandoned religion but in the sense that it has a different relationship with religion, which can no longer be reduced to an alternative between Islamist movements of protest and a quietist religion propagated by states which only with a great deal of blindness – as Malika Zeghal observes – could be defined as being ‘secular.’ Just as the killing of Bin Laden has not meant the end of terrorism (whose extreme genealogy between Sunni extremism and the ideology of Khomeini is, amongst other things, explained by Farhad Khosrokhavar), so the new scenario of the Middle East does not in the least imply the disappearance of movements of Islamist inspiration. On the contrary: it is to be expected that these movements – a well organised force although one subject to unpredictable internal developments – will play a very significant role in the years to come. However the most striking element to emerge from these revolutions is the detachment (which is primarily to do with age) between the new generation and official religious institutions, Muslim and Christian alike. This truly provides food for thought.

 

 

A third element, which hitherto has been widely underestimated, is the role of the economy in all these events. Almost all the states of the Middle East are based upon a system of income which, above all where the new oil boom has not acted to pay off the debts of governments, has been shown to be unsustainable. Just as the revolution of 1989 could also be explained with reference to the need to open up new markets, with a sweeping away of inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies that obstructed economic penetration, so a similar analytical approach to the Arab Spring is not to be neglected. And if this interpretation is plausible, because the States with these characteristics are not limited to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, one may expect that the pressures and disorders will continue for a long time. In the meanwhile Egypt has once again encountered in an acute form the problem of refugees and migrants. A far-sighted policy (one, to be clear, that would not have unleashed the hazardous war in Libya in the belief that the regime of Ghedaffi would fall in the space of a few days) would require the following of a pathway of renewed economic support. And this is even more the case because even revolutions with the highest ideals, if they do not manage to assure a minimum of wellbeing to their populations are destined to fail.

 

 

Faced with the New

 

 

And where do the Christians fit into all of this? A necessary – and let us admit it – fascinating geopolitical analysis must not relegate to a secondary position the reason for the existence of our review and the whole of the project that the Oasis Foundation leads: to understand in what way the Christians of the West and the Christians of the East, together with Muslim believers, can direct the tumultuous process of the mestizaje of peoples and civilisations towards new forms of the good life which are broader and more solid than the current ones.

 

Before the revolution of January-February, Egyptian Christians had showed themselves to be an important indicator of events, veritable sunflowers. When, after the New Year attacks in Alexandria, the demonstrators targeted government representatives, some people began to understand that either the Copts had gone mad or the Egyptian administration was not that bastion of minorities that it was habitually portrayed as being. During the days of the demonstrations, a reacquired Islamic-Christian concord generated a great deal of hope. Yet although the minority communities over recent months have had the function of being ‘indicators’ of a more general malaise, first, and renewed popular unity, subsequently, the return of inter-confessional violence in Cairo and elsewhere in the country, cannot but generate great concern. In the new Middle East that is taking shape, will there be more or less space for minorities, more or less religious freedom? This is the worrying question that many eastern Christians are asking, with an understandable emphasis which at times levels every analysis down to this parameter alone.

 

 

One fact, however, clearly emerges: the old system of protection, which for that matter did not impede an important exodus from the region, no longer exists or is disappearing. To hold onto what remains of this system is not a strategy that will take us far. We need to be courageous, aware that, as has already happened in the past, Christians do not ask for privileges for some: they ask for rights for everyone. ‘When listening to the demands,’ writes H.E. Msgr. Audo, ‘of the popular masses from Tunisia to Egypt, passing by way of Libya and the countries of the Gulf, one cannot but perceive a mysterious link between the appeal of the Synod and everything that Arab and Muslim young people call for today, such as justice and freedom.’ Which man wants to be the man of the third millennium? This is the question, observes Cardinal Scola, which echoes strongly in all latitudes, in the Maghreb, but not only there.

 

 

On 7-8 May the Holy Father honoured the North-East of Italy and the city of Venice in particular with a very intense apostolic visit. In his address which he gave in Aquileia, the mother Church not only of the Patriarchate of Venice but also of more than fifty dioceses from Hungary to Bavaria, he declared: ‘do not deny anything of the Gospel in which you believe, but live in the midst of others with sympathy, communicating by your very way of life that humanism which is rooted in Christianity, in order to build together with all people of good will a “city” which is more human, more just and more supportive.’ From the coast of that Adriatic which ‘carries the Mediterranean to the heart of Europe’ (once again the words of Benedict XVI) we hear this invitation as the most suitable words that exist on the challenges that await us.

 

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